How robots are changing logistics

Logistics is about to get a lot more exciting now robots are taking over the supply chain.

Select your product, add to basket, pay, and wait for your parcel to arrive. For the customer the process is simple. However, behind the scenes the logistical task of getting goods to door or store since the advent of e-commerce is infinitely more complex.

The overriding question in the boardrooms of logistics companies has been: how can we do things faster and more efficiently without compromising quality of service?

Now they’ve found the answer: bring in the smart machines – something manufacturing has been doing for years.

While robots are only just beginning to take hold in this industry, by 2021 Tractica predict the global warehousing and logistics robots market will hit €19.2 billion. But what will be the impact?

From transportation to fulfilment to end-delivery, let’s take a look at the future of logistics.


Automated ships and trucks

Credit: Waymo

Getting goods from factories to warehouses and distribution centres is a mammoth logistical task.

But with automated trucks and ships – complete with cameras, lasers, and GPS systems – being tested, this part of the supply chain is about to be disrupted.

In March this year Waymo launched a pilot programme focusing on self-driving trucks and automated logistics. In fact, their smart big rigs are already set to deliver freight to Google’s data centres in Atlanta. While they’ll still need a safety driver for now, eventually they’ll drive alone.

Out at sea, transporter vessels are also verging on being able to transport freight autonomously. In Norway Massterly has created the Yara Birkeland, the first fully electric self-captaining container ship.  37 metres long and able to carry 120 containers, it will even be capable of loading and unloading without a crew.

These trucks and ships will enable massive efficiencies and cost savings. Working 24/7, they’ll always take the quickest route, speeding up delivery times. In addition, humans will no longer be needed on the road or out at sea. Instead their roles will become more technical as they oversee navigation from a monitoring system thousands of miles away.

End delivery


Copyright: Airbus 2018 / Photo: S Ramadier

Earlier this year, Airbus Skyways – an unmanned aerial vehicle designed to deliver parcels to customers in urban environments – took to Singaporean skies and proved it’s up to the task.

After being launched from a control centre, it docked on a special rooftop parcel station, where it was loaded via a robot arm before it took off again. This was a success for the company and a big step towards making drone deliveries a reality.

Airbus aren’t the only ones pushing the logistics drone dream. Amazon and UPS are also investing big. Amazon is currently testing Prime Air’s ability to deliver goods to customer in 30 minutes in several locations, including the UK. Meanwhile, UPS is trialling HorseFly, a UAV delivery system that launches from a vehicle.

Drones have the potential to enable huge efficiencies in end-delivery logistics, efficiencies that can be pushed to customers. Not only could they potentially deliver goods faster, but they could also do so at a fraction of the cost. UPS has estimated it could save €43 million every year.

Safe and reliable urban air delivery is a reality not too distant into the future, and Airbus is certainly excited to be a forerunner in this endeavour.

Alain Flourens, Airbus Helicopters’ Executive Vice President of Engineering and Chief Technical Officer

Self-driving robots

Delivery robots turning up at your door is still a bit of a gimmick. But it could soon be an everyday occurrence, one set to transform end-delivery logistics. A number of startup companies, including Swiss-based Teleretail AG and UK-based Starship Technologies, are already prototyping this new tech with great success.

Controlled and dispensed from a local hub, the technology is much like that used in self-driving cars, including sensors, computer vision systems and GPS systems, which help them navigate city environments. Starship’s robots can currently deliver within a 2-mile radius, taking 5-30 minutes to complete the task.

These robots could have a significant impact, enabling packages to be delivered at a fraction of the cost, and reducing the environmental impact thanks to their efficient, green systems. They also make deliveries safer by taking humans off the task.

How soon could they be put to work? In April Starship announced plans to roll out 1,000 vehicles by the end of the year.


Collaborative robots

To improve productivity and boost supply-chain efficiencies, Deutsche Post DHL Group (DHL), the world’s leading mail and logistics company, has been trialling collaborative robots across warehouses in Europe.

The cobots in question are Baxter and Sawyer from Rethink Robotics. What have they been doing? Assisting workers in packaging and inventory tasks.

Comprising dextrous robotic arms and a screen face, these futuristic warehouse workers are equipped with complex vision systems, force sensing and advanced machine-learning software. This enables them to work safely alongside humans and ‘think’ on task.

How are they changing the industry?

“By deploying these robots to work in tandem with humans, we can ensure our production lines are adjusting to changes and running more efficiently year-round,” says Adrian Kumar, Vice President of Solutions Design North America at DHL Supply Chain.

In addition, bringing in cobots means warehouse workers no longer have to carry out the menial repetitive tasks. This will reduce ergonomic injuries and open up more rewarding technical jobs.

Automated mobile bots

Baxter and Sawyer aren’t the only smart machines taking over warehouses and distribution centres. Smart robots equipped with lasers and 360-degree movement are also navigating the floor, making light work of other traditionally manual logistical tasks.

In warehouses around the world, Amazon KIVA system bots have been gliding down aisles, locating goods and taking stacked shelves back to workers for picking, packing and posting for a couple of years now.

Similar scenes can be witnessed in China’s Alibaba warehouses, where robots now do 70% of the work. In Ocado’s facilities in the UK, robots can be seen navigating a futuristic giant chessboard grid, storing and retrieving grocery items.

In a world where e-commerce is increasing, these robots are boosting efficiency and reducing costs. Human workers no longer have to walk the routes to collect goods from what could be millions of items of inventory, saving time and labour, as well as reducing errors. For customers it means faster same-day delivery times, while for workers it means a shift in responsibilities:

A lot of these jobs are low-skilled and can be replaced in the near future by automation […] Consequently we’re going to see a real root-and-branch change in the way the logistics industry is organised.

John Manners-Bell, consultancy Transport Intelligence (via the Financial Times)

The latest applications of robotic technology are delivering change and benefits on a large scale when it comes to logistics.

As robots take over more of the supply chain, companies are realising increased efficiencies and cost savings, while customers are enjoying a better experience and faster delivery times.

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